For the past few weeks we’ve talked about deep reading and allusion–heady stuff, and crucial. This week I’d like to turn to the heart of poems, the emotions they set off in us. And in particular, I want to hear about some of your earliest examples of that experience, whether they’re poems you still love or poems you’ve moved on from. What follows is an earlier post I did on this topic, but it’s been a while, and it was before the Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussions. Think back to poems (maybe even nursery rhymes) that gave you early glimmerings of the magic that words can create.
Sometimes I start a class with a book that takes me straight to the heart of wanting to write poetry: First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them, edited by Carmela Ciuraru (Scribners 2001). If you don’t already know it, I’d recommend the amazon page review for a sense of what it’s like. Ciuraru asked a wide range of contemporary poets to choose a poem that inspired them early on and say a few words about it. Every time I read around in the book I’m taken back to some of my own sources, and the same thing happens to students when they read it: a direct line opens to those original urges. The book is full of surprises: Robert Creeley chooses Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” and Wanda Coleman picks Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” for example.
A number of experiences made me fall in love with words: my father asking “What’s black and white and red all over?” I was stumped. “A newspaper.” What? Oh! Read! That language could do that. Or my grandmother writing out “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambsy divey” after she’d sung it. Later it was Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and—like Creeley—the galloping “Highwayman.” But it was Frost’s ability to see through tranquil surfaces to the depths below that resonated with something in me, from the opening of “My November Guest” (“My sorrow, when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be….”) to the horrifying “Out, Out—,” where a young boy is mortally wounded as he’s sawing lumber. But one in particular seemed to speak directly to me, where I lived in Utah’s arid landscape:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
I’m curious to hear about your first loves. Please post your own examples and the reasons you chose them here, and join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) reading and discussion. I’ll send the zoom link on Thursday.
I loved reading this post. It took me right back to childhood and early poems that struck me. One that I loved then and still love now is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. My own reading of the poem always reminds me that there is so much power and simple beauty in things just being and being beside one another. I love the layers and vivid images and the sound of the language in this short poem. Another early love is “l(a… (a leaf falls on loneliness)” by ee cummings. I love the music of the poem, the way the structure enhances the meaning, the playfulness. This poem showed me how poetry can take apart and make language new. One other poem I remember from elementary school days is “The Deadly Eye” by Shel Silverstein–I remember cuddling up in the reading nook of my classroom with a book of poems and the chills and questions this poem brought me, showing me how much a poem can make you feel.
The Red Wheelbarrow
BY WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
l(a… (a leaf falls on loneliness)
by ee cummings
The Deadly Eye
By Shel Silverstein
It’s the deadly eye
Look away, look away,
As you walk by,
‘Cause whoever looks right at it
Surely will die.
It’s a good thing you didn’t …
You did? …
Thanks for these examples, Sierra. I remember the thrill of reading Cummings for the first time, seeing what language could do. I didn’t read Silverstein as a kid, but I had a wonderful experience with his work. Someone I knew asked me if I could come to her house to talk to her daughter’s Girl Scout group about poetry–they could get a merit badge for listening. When the time came, I really didn’t know what to say, but I stumbled through a few thoughts. Then one girl said a line of poetry I didn’t recognize, and another said the next, and another the next, all around the table, and when they finished they all ran out of the room. A Shel Silverstein poem. So they taught me, and really deserved a badge for that.
My very favorite poem is by Wallace Stevens.
A POSTCARD FROM THE VOLCANO
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;
And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became
A part of what it is … Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,
Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,
A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.
**What I love is the odd perspective, children long in the future picking up bones. Love the lush opulent details, very a la Wallace Stevens. Wish I could join you at 4 p.m. today but I have a medical appointment. Cheers! Patricia
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
Hi. Want to say something about what in it struck you?
Martha, I adore this poem! It’s like a great market place of sounds, and, just getting to know you a little over ZOOM, I can well imagine how it appeals to you.
Of course tech butchered the form. Quinquerime not capitalized. 3 stanzas: breaks after ‘wine’ and moidores. I was an only child & my father loved me by treating me as an honorary boy. He was the one who read to me, things that he had loved. Also, majorly, Kipling’s If, but that embarrasses me now. In childhood-adolescence I thought I’d write fiction, didn’t go to poetry until, in college, I noticed that my stories (one published in Harper’s, $1000) were made of images instead of plots & characters; unable to write another one. I remembered Cargoes maybe 10 years ago, knocked sox asleep in me all these years. Astonishing rhythms & music, anapests & dactyls & especially — spondees! — my favorite metric, Hopkins too. Triple spondees: SWEET WHITE WINE! MAD MARCH DAYS! CHEAP TIN TRAYS! Quadruple: SALT CAKED SMOKE STACK! and vocabulary, delicious weird words.
I’m sorry about the butchering–I’m still working on the tech part, don’t have it all down. For some reason line spacing is complicated.
As I was going to Saint Ives
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks.
Every sack had seven cats.
Every cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives –
How many were going to Saint Ives?
I read POGO books my parents had. The answer is one,
but I loved how Albert Alligator refused to accept the answer
and devoted mental arithmetic then a lot of paper and pencil
calculation to find the answer. The books seem to have always
been there. Great to return to these early times with language
A coincidence. While a number of weeks have gone past,
I have returned to writing that includes the Mairsie Doats song.
Oh, I loved the Saint Ives rhyme, felt so proud after I knew the right answer–like being part of a secret club.
What a great blog! I love “Desert Places” and the atmosphere it creates.
In third grade, I discovered a book in our school library called “Hailstones and Halibut Bones: Adventures in Color” by Mary O’Neil (with exquisite illustrations by Leonard Weisgard). I renewed it as often as I could! Each color had its own poem. Decades later I found and bought a copy of this book.
Here are a few lines from “What is Green?”: “Green is a coolness/You get in shade/Of the tall old woods/Where the moss is made./Green is a flutter/That comes in Spring/When frost melts out/Of everything.”
And some lines from “What is Yellow?”: “Yellow blinks/On summer nights/In the off-and-on of/Firefly lights./Yellow’s a topaz,/A candle flame./Felicity’s a/Yellow name./Yellow’s mimosa,/And I guess,/Yellow’s the color of/Happiness.”
So simple yet so meaningful to me as a child, to think of the wonder of the world, to classify objects, feelings, tastes, smells and sounds according to colors.
And then, in college, I discovered “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty false and true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And his his face amid a crowd of stars.
How wonderful, I thought, to be loved for “the pilgrim soul in you” and “the sorrows of your changing face.”
Thank you for this! Both the compliment and the examples. This is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of. I hope you can be at Fridays at 4 tomorrow to talk about them in person.
I hope to be there!
I had a reawakening to poetry in my mid-20s, and here are two poems that were a big part of it; one by Elizabeth Bishop, and one by George Herbert; Bishop mentioned this poem in an interview I read somewhere, introducing me to another poet whom I now treasure. They both have a feeling of dream-like mystery, and of yearning for something we can’t quite name.
Sleeping on the Ceiling, Elizabeth Bishop
It is so peaceful on the ceiling!
It is the Place de la Concorde.
The little crystal chandelier
is off, the fountain is in the dark.
Not a soul is in the park.
Below, where the wallpaper is peeling,
the Jardin des Plantes has locked its gates.
Those photographs are animals.
The mighty flowers and foliage rustle;
under the leaves the insects tunnel.
We must go under the wallpaper
to meet the insect-gladiator,
to battle with a net and trident,
and leave the fountain and the square
But oh, that we could sleep up there…
Hope, George Herbert
I gave to Hope a watch of mine: but he
An anchor gave to me.
Then an old prayer-book I did present:
And he an optick sent.
With that I gave a viall full of tears:
But he a few green eares.
Ah Loyterer! I’le no more, no more I’le bring:
I did expect a ring.